Household plastics threat to unborn boys

Last updated at 09:33 27 May 2005

A chemical found in household products can harm the development of unborn baby boys, say scientists.

Phthalates - commonly found in plastics, cosmetics and soap - are thought to severely damage male development in the womb.

In the past they have been linked to so-called

'genderbending' effects in animals because of their ability to alter hormonal balance.

The chemicals - used in a host of everyday items such as clingfilm, packaging and toys - can cause male animalsto become more feminine-leading to poor sperm quality and infertility.

This is the first time the effect has been linked to babies in the womb.

Pre-natal exposure

The study of 134 boys, aged between two and 30 months, is thought to be the first to investigate the effects on genitals of pre-natal exposure to phthalates.

The research led by Professor Shanna Swan, of the University of Rochester, New York, suggests that some types of phthalates may suppress-the hormones involved in male sexual development.

The tests showed that women with higher levels of four different phthalates in their urine were more likely to have babies with a range of conditions affecting their genitalia.

The authors of the report say the effects, including smaller penises and undescended testicles, indicate a feminisation of the boys similar to that seen in animals exposed to the chemicals.

Serious questions

Andreas Kortenkamp, an expert in environmental pollution at the School of Pharmacy-in London, said the report, which is published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, raised serious questions.

"These are mass chemicals," he said. "They are used in any plastic that is pliable, whether it's clingfilm, blood bags or toys."

One way that phthalates get into the bloodstream is when they seep into food from plastic packaging.

Gwynne Lyons, a toxics adviser to the conservation group WWF-UK, said: "Regulation of the chemicals industry is woefully inadequate."

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now